The Symphony: History, Parts and Function in Society

The Symphony: History, Parts and Function in Society
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  • 0:02 Introduction
  • 0:47 Origins of the Symphony
  • 1:47 The Classical Period
  • 3:11 What Instruments Perform?
  • 4:10 Structure
  • 6:02 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Emma Riggle

Emma has taught college Music courses and holds a master's degree in Music History and Literature.

During the Classical Period, the genre of symphony was considered the highest form of instrumental music. In this lesson, we'll look at how the symphony developed and the part it played in Classical-era culture.

The Genre of Symphony

You know that a TV show is successful when it leads to spin-off series. When that happens, it usually means that some secondary character in the show was so popular that the audience couldn't get enough. Today we're going to look at a spin-off in the world of music: the genre of symphony.

A symphony is a work for orchestra in several sections, called movements. It was originally relegated to a humble position as the introductory music for an opera. Symphonies became so popular in the 18th century that they detached completely from opera and turned into the most revered instrumental genre of the era. Now that's a successful spin-off!

The Origins of the Symphony

The symphony had a few musical ancestors, but its most direct ancestor is the sinfonia, a short overture that was heard at the beginning of a 17th-century Italian opera. 'Sinfonia' means 'sounding together', because sinfonias were always written for a small orchestra, never just one or two instruments.

Italian sinfonias were usually written in three sections, called movements. The usual pattern was a fast first movement, a slow second movement, and a fast final movement. Opera was a terrifically popular entertainment in the 17th and 18th centuries, so the sinfonia genre gained a lot of exposure. Soon, sinfonias began to appear in concerts outside of the opera house. By 1730, composers were writing symphonies as free-standing musical works for orchestra.

Symphony in the Classical Period

The symphony came into its own during the Classical Period, a chunk of music history that lasted from the mid-18th century to the early 19th century. This was a time when society was changing, and more people were gaining access to orchestral music. Earlier in the 18th century, orchestral music was often reserved for the social elite: many orchestra performances were private events funded by wealthy aristocrats.

By the mid-18th century, new economic prosperity meant that a market of prosperous middle-class listeners began to appear in Europe. Public concerts funded by ticket sales became an increasingly popular music venue, and middle-class audiences flocked to them. These concerts were something like variety shows, with singers, instrumental soloists, and other musical acts. The big opener of a public concert was usually a symphony.

The symphony became one of the Classical Period's most popular musical genres. Just about every Classical composer wanted to prove his chops by writing symphonies. Composers like Franz Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven brought the symphony to unprecedented heights during the Classical Era. You can hear more about them in other lessons in this chapter.

What Instruments Perform?

The Classical-era symphony was designed to entertain the average middle-class listener. It was full of catchy, tuneful melodies with contrasting moods, tempos, and tone colors. Composers in the Classical Period always wrote their symphonies for the orchestra of their time, an ensemble with a standard set of instruments and no singers.

Classical-era orchestras were smaller than modern symphony orchestras, but still full of variety. Composers especially liked to contrast the orchestra's string sections with its wind section: for example, in a symphony by Mozart, you'll often hear the strings and winds answering back to each other in a musical dialogue.

The Classical orchestra's string section included violins, violas, and cellos. Some of its wind instruments were flutes, clarinets, bassoons, and French horns. For special occasions, composers might add the boom of a timpani or the blast of trumpets.

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